United States Wedding Traditions

United States customs

Most weddings in the United States follow a similar pattern to the Italian wedding. Customs and traditions vary, but common components are listed below.

Before the wedding
  • The host sends invitations to the wedding guests, usually 6 weeks prior the wedding. Invitations may most formally be addressed by hand to show the importance and personal meaning of the occasion. Large numbers of invitations may be mechanically reproduced. As engraving was the highest quality printing technology available in the past, this has become associated with wedding invitation tradition. Receiving an invitation does not impose any obligation on the invitee other than promptly accepting or declining the invitation, and offering congratulations to the couple.
  • While giving any gift to the newlywed couple is technically optional, nearly all invited guests who attend the wedding choose to do so. Wedding gifts are most commonly sent to the bride’s or host’s home before the wedding day. Gifts are typically not brought to ceremonies or receptions, and any that are will not opened, but rather placed aside for later delivery to the newlyweds’ home.
  • A color scheme is selected by some to match everything from bridesmaids’ dresses, flowers, invitations, and decorations, though there is no necessity in doing so.
At the wedding
  • A wedding ceremony is often at a church, courthouse, or outdoor venue. The ceremony is usually brief, and is may be dictated by the couple’s religious practices. The most common non-religious form is derived from a simple Anglican ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer.
  • The bride usually wears a white, off-white, silver, or other very light-colored dress, particularly at her first marriage. Brides may choose any color, although black is strongly discouraged by some as it is the color of mourning in the west.
  • Rice is sometimes thrown at the newlyweds as they leave the ceremony to symbolize fertility. Some individuals, churches or communities choose birdseed due to a false but widely believed myth that birds eating the rice will burst. Because of the mess that rice and birdseed make, modern couples often leave in clouds of bubbles.
  • The wedding party may form a receiving line at this point, or later at a reception, so that each guest may greet the entire wedding party.
At the wedding reception
  • Drinks, snacks, (or often a full meal at long receptions) are served while the guests and wedding party mingle.
  • Often the best man and/or maid of honor toast the newlyweds with personal thoughts, stories, and well-wishes; sometimes other guests follow with their own toasts. Champagne is usually provided for this purpose.
  • In a symbolic cutting of the wedding cake, the couple may jointly hold a cake knife and cut the first pieces of the wedding cake, which they feed to each other. In some sub-cultures, they may deliberately smear cake on each other’s faces, which is considered vulgar elsewhere.
  • If dancing is offered, the newlyweds first dance together briefly. Often a further protocol is followed, wherein each dances next with a parent, and then possibly with other members of the wedding party. Special songs are chosen by the couple, particularly for a mother/son dance and a father/daughter dance. In some subcultures, a dollar dance takes place in which guests are expected to dance with the one of the newlyweds, and give them a small amount of cash. This practice, as is any suggestion that the guests owe money to the couple, is considered rude in most social groups as it is contrary to basic western etiquette.
  • In the mid-twentieth century it became common for a bride to toss her bouquet over her shoulder to the assembled unmarried women during the reception. The woman who catches it, superstition has it, will be the next to marry. In a similar process, her groom tosses the bride’s garter to the unmarried men, followed by the man who caught the garter placing it on the leg of the woman who caught the bouquet. While still common in many circles, these practices (particularly the latter) are falling into less favor in the 21st century.
 Wedding gifts

The purpose of inviting guests is to have them witness a couple’s marriage ceremony and vows and to share in their joy and celebration. Gifts for the wedding couple are optional, although most guests attempt to give at least a token gift of their best wishes. Some couples and families feel, contrary to proper etiquette, that in return for the expense they put into entertaining and feeding their guests, the guests should pay them with similarly expensive gifts or cash.

The couple often registers for gifts at a store well in advance of their wedding. This allows them to create a list of household items, usually including china, silverware and crystalware, linens or other fabrics, pots and pans, etc. Registries are intended to aid guests in selecting gifts the newlyweds truly want, and the service is sufficiently profitable that most retailers, from luxury shops to discount stores, offer the opportunity. Registry information should, according to etiquette, be provided only to guests upon direct request, and never included in the invitation. Some couples additionally or instead register with services that enable money gifts intended to fund items such as a honeymoon, home purchase or college fund. Some find bridal registries inappropriate as they contravene traditional notions behind gifts, such as that all gifts are optional and delightful surprises personally chosen by the giver, and that registries lead to a type of price-based competition, as the couple knows the cost of each gift. Traditionally, weddings were considered a personal event and inviting people to the wedding who are not known to at least one member of the couple well enough to be able to choose an appropriate gift was considered inappropriate, and registries should therefore be unnecessary. Whether considered appropriate or not, others believe that weddings are opportunities to extract funds or specific gifts from as many people as possible, and that even an invitation carries an expectation of monetary reward rather than merely congratulations.

Letters of thanks for any gift are traditionally sent promptly after the gift’s receipt. Tradition allows wedding gifts to be sent up to a year after the wedding date. Thanks should be sent as soon as possible, preferably within two weeks.

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